Home World NewsKorea [Wang Son-taek] Pyongyang-Tokyo talks a two-edged sword

[Wang Son-taek] Pyongyang-Tokyo talks a two-edged sword

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North Korea and Japan are not hiding signs that they recently had behind-the-scenes talks on a possible summit. While the so-called new Cold War structure is being discussed and worries about the potential war breaking are spreading, interest is increasing rapidly in whether the contact between North Korea and Japan could be a critical event that can change the dynamics of Northeast Asia.

It remains to be seen whether the two parties can hold a summit, as there are many obstacles. The most significant variable is North Korea’s insistence that the nuclear and missile issues and the Japanese abduction issue be ruled out. Prime Minister Kishida can retain the event’s meaning when discussing those issues.

On the contrary, Chairman Kim Jong-un will feel more comfortable not holding a meeting if the two issues are on the agenda. However, the most crucial variable in diplomatic negotiations is not the environment but the national necessity or the will of the supreme leader. If a leader has a strong will, they will overcome obstacles.

It is possible to solve the problem by creating a scenario that does not impose a political burden on either side by bringing up sensitive issues but not reaching a specific agreement. Kishida will be satisfied if he can claim that he raised essential issues with Kim while initiating a structural change in the relations with North Korea. Suppose the benefits of the summit with Japan are excellent and clear. In that case, Kim can also take a tactical card in which he regards the meeting as an opportunity to reaffirm his position on crucial issues.

If the summit is held, the Pyongyang-Tokyo contact will be considered a diplomatic victory for Kishida. Even if the summit does not produce concrete results, it will be a significant diplomatic event confirming Kishida’s international presence. Even if the talks do not occur, there is nothing to lose in that communication with the North will increase understanding of North Korea’s diplomatic strategy and Japan’s diplomatic assets. In this regard, Kishida’s moves are clever. North Korea will also expect to find a tiny hole that can weaken the solidarity of South Korea, the US, and Japan and will undermine the economic sanctions regime against North Korea.

In the case of the United States, the instability caused by military tensions in Northeast Asia will decrease. It will be evaluated that the US-led order will become more stable. South Korea can benefit from easing military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. China will also judge that North Korea’s focus on diplomacy rather than military tensions is helpful for stability in Northeast Asia.

However, there are negative points to contact between North Korea and Japan. Significantly, the Republic of Korea has a few problems. The most sensitive part is that South Korea might be alienated from significant diplomatic activity in Northeast Asia, and its status is downgraded.

When the two sides are negotiating with the aim of a summit, South Korea should figure out what is going on between the neighbors. However, it has not been able to communicate with North Korea at all. Consultations with Japan also are not sufficient. South Korean government officials indirectly expressed dissatisfaction with the recent report of contacts, saying, “It should be helpful for denuclearization,” reflecting the lack of communication with Japan.

The contact between them could lead to cracks in the cooperation and solidarity of the three countries of South Korea, the US, and Japan because the cooperation commitment signed at Camp David, Maryland, last year aimed to keep North Korea in check. If the trilateral cooperation system is broken, it will mean a hole in South Korea’s security posture.

North Korea, which has changed its policy stance on the South toward a warring two-state relationship, will emphasize the framework of inter-Korean belligerence and deepen the separation of the two brother nations. The fixation of division will result in the reaffirmation that both Koreas are categorized as weak nations that must rely on the other powerful countries in terms of security issues.

South Korea is a country that should embrace not only positive factors but also significant risks that come from North Korean contacts, so it needs a high level of strategic response. One of the critical diplomatic guidelines is that a nation should maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses. The South should support the North Korea-Japan summit efforts, as the move would help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But at the same time, the South should not be sidelined from issues of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. In this regard, it is painful to see that Japan lacks consultation with the South as it is making diplomatic contact with North Korea.

One of the best ways for the South not to be isolated from the North Korean issue is to talk directly with the North. Achieving dialogue with the North is not being dragged into the North’s negotiating tactic but is a prerequisite for maintaining the initiative in the North Korean issue. South Korea should also always manage its relations with China and Russia positively. Everybody knows that China is an influential state in diplomatic matters related to North Korea, and Russia is a country that can provide emergency assistance to overcome difficult situations.

If South Korea maintains the South Korea-US alliance and trilateral cooperation, operates dialogue channels with the North, and communicates with China and Russia, the chances of a North Korea-Japan summit will increase. Chances will also increase that it will participate in distribution by taking advantage of diplomatic gains from the summit. On the contrary, if South Korea does not lead North Korean affairs, the chances of the summit will decrease, and South Korea’s diplomatic weight will be even lower. Even if the summit proceeds, the South might face the humiliation of experiencing isolation at decisive diplomatic events.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. — Ed.

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